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Sisters in Solitude
Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women
A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese Dharmagupta and the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada Bhiksuni Pratimoksa Sutras
by Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo
State University of New York Press, Albany. 1996. $19.95
ISBN 0-7914-3090-1

Reviewed by Dharmapala.

Sisters in Solitude is a presentation of translations and analyses of two of the traditions of precepts for the fully-ordained Buddhist nun. The two traditions presented are the Dharmagupta lineage in the form of a joint translation produced with Bhikshuni Heng Ching Shih and the Muulasarvaastivaada lineage in the form of a translation by the author.

For those who are unfamiliar with the background of the extant Buddhist ordination lineages, it is helpful to realize that the Dharmagupta precepts practiced by the Bhikshuni communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Korea, and Sino-buddhist enclaves in the West represent the only higher ordination lineage available to any Buddhist woman wishing to become a fully-ordained nun.

The other tradition of interest in this work is the Mulasarvastivada precept lineage now most usually associated with Tibetan monks. This would ordinarily be the ordination lineage of choice for Buddhist women whose understanding of Buddhist doctrine has come through contact with those schools. Although this would seem logical and obvious, it is not possible because no lineages of Bhikshuni precepts were ever established in Tibet. This has left Tibetan Buddhist women in the somewhat ironic position of having to go to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Chinese temples in the West, or (as in the case of the author) Korea in order to gain the complete bhikshuni ordination.

The author presents a thorough and balanced introduction, comparative analysis, and forward-looking conclusion along with the two translations. Those who are inclined to favor more traditional Buddhist priorities in the presentation of Vinaya topics may find occasional cause for the raised eyebrow in a few digressive passages such as: "The restitution of the Bhiksuni Sangha would stand as a symbol of women's spiritual power and equality and serve as a bridge linking women in Buddhist cultures with women's movements in other countries. ...the bonds of friendship and cooperation developed between Asian Buddhist women and Western feminists have been extremely valuable for both sides. ... the reestablishment of the order of fully ordained Buddhist nuns has far-reaching implications for the feminist movement in Asia." (p.xi)

This work also contains a few examples of a mild tendency to give fairly automatic credence to the academic buddhologist's reflexive discounting of standard Buddhist tenets. For instance: "Although modern scholarship questions their validity, traditional renditions of this incident recount that the Buddha hesitated three times before admitting these women to the order . . ." (p.19)

Of course anyone who has expended significant effort in the study of academic buddhology knows that "modern scholarship" questions nearly every aspect of Buddhist tradition. A large number of these indictments are made purely on the grounds of mere circumstantial evidence or outright hubristic opinionation in scholarly guise. This failure to subject the academic buddhological discipline to the rigors of a truly scientific method results in the writings of modern buddhologists being rife with cases of mere opinion being enshrined on the level of "fact." Thus for an aspect of tradition to be the subject of scholarly doubt is not particularly noteworthy in a Buddhist context except where a solid scientific basis is presented for possessing the doubt. Thus whenever one runs into the "modern scholarship questions. . ." phrase, it's tempting to wonder if this isn't simply a figleaf covering for opinions of the author.

On the whole, though, instances of this sort in this work are extremely mild and well-balanced, especially when compared with much of modern buddho-feminist rhetoric wherein it is now quite common to automatically attribute any ideas the least bit dissonant to the feminist ear as "later patriarchal accretions" or as examples of the Buddha somehow being helpless to transcend the oppressive patriarchal norms of his time.

Sisters in Solitude is an important, timely and well-presented work of great interest to the limited audience for which it is appropriate reading. This is a very helpful work for facilitating an understanding among monks and nuns of both Tibetan and Chinese traditions of how extremely closely the precepts of the two traditions resemble each other. In fact the differences are extremely slight and limited to minor details in only a few of the more than three hundred regulations at issue. Realization of this fact may help somewhat in enhancing respect between monastics of the two traditions and may also be helpful in producing a solidly-established tradition of Dharmagupta precept lineage bhikshunis whose doctrinal affiliation is with either Gelug or Kagyu Tibetan teaching lineages.

Due to the legally dependent relationship between bhikshuni and bhikshu sanghas established by the monastic legal codes, it is highly unlikely that there can ever be a lineage of Tibetan-affiliated bhikshunis who will not be constrained to return to East Asian monastic communities for receipt of the precepts within the context of that thriving bhikshuni tradition. In short, it is not traditionally considered even plausible for one bhikshuni precept lineage to graft itself onto an existing bhikshu monastic community of another precept lineage.

This may remain an open question in some quarters, however, and it is very important that the concept be given a complete, honest and fair hearing by the Sanghas of each of these precept lineages. Even if such "grafting" is not allowed to take place there is certainly nothing to prevent Tibetan tradition monks and the laypeople who support them from according the highest level of respect, hospitality and support to nuns who happen to have received the Buddha's precepts from another precept lineage.

Whether or not such a grafting per se is ever allowed to take place, Sisters in Solitude still goes a long way at least towards facilitating a comfortable working relationship which should allow Dharmagupta lineage bhikshunis to occupy a position of unquestioned respect among the Mulasarvastivadin bhikshus and laypeople of the Tibetan traditions. In the final analysis, whether or not a tradition of Dharmagupta lineage nuns successfully establishes itself in a state of at least unofficial coexistence alongside the Mulasarvastivadin monks of the Tibetan tradition is an enterprise which will likely stand or fall on the bhikshunis' collective ability to at least engender a modicum of the spirit of the eight dharmas of respect laid down by the Buddha himself as absolute preconditions for the existence of a bhikshuni sangha. Certainly if the eight dharmas are just laughed off as some sort of grotesque anachronism, this would not bode well for the success of the venture.

In the interest of understanding this reviewer's comment about "the limited audience for which this text is appropriate reading," one who is thinking of studying this book should at least consider the following: Traditionally, it is held to be inappropriate for the laity to concern themselves with the study of monastic regulations. Although this convention is sometimes interpreted by some laypeople or scholars as a thinly-veiled monastic formulation geared to keep the behavior of monks and nuns beyond the critical scrutiny of the lay community, the monastic explanation for this convention is that the karmic liabilities for laypeople in criticism of the fine points of monastic behavior are particularly severe and thus it is in the best karmic interests of the laity to concern themselves primarily with issues related to their own cultivation.

That said, Sisters in Solitude is highly recommended reading for that audience for which it is appropriate. The author is to be commended for taking the initiative to produce this very valuable and pioneering work while also taking care to focus the presentation to one which is straightforward, balanced and not unduly burdened with polemical and political considerations lying beyond the scope of the proper priorities of Buddhist spiritual cultivation.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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